August 10, 1969: San Clemente, California—President Richard Nixon accused his predecessor Lyndon Baines Johnson of complicity in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Speaking with reporters on the first day of a 10-day stay at his Pacific Ocean vacation home …
Of course, that never happened. Obviously. How could it; how dare it? But had it happened, such an accusation—by a president, against a former president—would have convulsed the United States and the world. Today, President Donald Trump accused his predecessor Bill Clinton—or possibly his 2016 campaign opponent, the former first lady and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—of complicity in the death of the accused sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein.
Many seem to have responded with a startled shrug. What do you expect? It’s just Trump letting off steam on Twitter.
Reactions to actions by Trump are always filtered through the prism of the ever more widely accepted view—within his administration, within Congress, within the United States, and around the world—that the 45th president is a reckless buffoon; a conspiratorial, racist moron, whose weird comments should be disregarded by sensible people.
By now, Trump’s party in Congress, the members of his Cabinet, and even his White House entourage all tacitly agree that Trump’s occupancy of the office held by Washington, Lincoln, FDR, and Eisenhower must be a bizarre cosmic joke, not to be taken seriously. CNN’s Jake Tapper on August 2 quoted a “senior national security official” as saying: “Everyone at this point ignores what the president says and just does their job. The American people should take some measure of confidence in that.”
Everybody at this point ignores what the president says.
So even though Trump just retweeted the comedian Terrence K. Williams accusing the Clinton family of murder, the people who work for Trump may ignore that, too. They know that the president punching the retweet button like an addled retiree playing the slots through a fog of painkillers means nothing. The days of “taking Trump seriously, not literally” have long since passed. By this point, Trump is taken neither seriously nor literally. His words are as worthless as Trump Organization IOUs.
But cosmic joke or no cosmic joke, Donald Trump is the president of the United States. You may not like it. I don’t like it. Mike Pompeo doesn’t like it. Mitch McConnell doesn’t like it. Kevin McCarthy doesn’t like it. But it’s still a fact, and each succeeding outrage makes it no less a fact. Grinning and flashing a thumbs-up over an orphaned baby? Yes, still president. Tweeting that a third-tier dictator has threatened him with more missile tests unless he halts military exercises with a U.S. ally——and that he has surrendered to that blackmail? Shamefully, still president. Accusing a former U.S. president of murder? It’s incredible, it’s appalling, it’s humiliating … but, yes, he is the president all the same.
Trump’s circle probably expects the world to sputter for a while and then be distracted by some new despicable statement or act. That is how it has gone for nearly three years, and that is how it is likely still to go. Trump is steering the U.S. and the world into a trade war, and perhaps a financial crisis and recession along with it. He is wrecking the structure of U.S. alliances in Asia, and his rhetoric is inciting shooting rampages against minorities. Compared with that, mere slurs and insults perhaps weigh lighter in the crushing Dumpster-load of Trump’s output of unfitness for the office he holds.
But it shouldn’t be forgotten, either, in the onrush of events. The certainty that Trump will descend ever deeper into subbasements of “new lows” after this new low should not numb us to its newness and lowness.
Neither the practical impediments to impeachment and the Twenty-Fifth Amendment process, nor the foibles and failings of the candidates running to replace him, efface the fact that this presidency shames and disgraces the office every minute of every hour of every day. And even when it ends, however it ends, the shame will stain it still.